Inconsistency’s quicksand snags our governor

STRAY THOUGHTS

BY RANDY EVANS

Consistency can rise up and snare political leaders if they are not careful.

A recent example is Gov. Kim Reynolds, who is now squirming after questions were raised over whether she favors local control or state control.

The question came up this summer when Madison County officials began studying a proposal from some people living in rural areas outside of Winterset. Those residents want to restrict where wind turbines can be erected in the county.

They are concerned wind turbines can cause nausea and headaches for people who live near them. Others are concerned the turbines are an eyesore that spoils a picturesque part of Iowa.

On the other side are environmental activists and Iowa’s largest utility company, Mid-American Energy.

MidAmerican now has about 2,600 wind turbines in Iowa producing electricity, making this state one of the top users of renewable energy in the United States. The company and the Iowa Environmental Council, a private advocacy organization, say there is no authoritative scientific evidence that wind turbines cause health problems.

But the Madison County Board of Supervisors voted earlier this month to impose a one-year moratorium on issuing new permits to build wind turbines in their county. During the moratorium, county officials plan to study whether to enact a requirement that future turbines must be constructed at least 1.5 miles from the nearest house.

This is where Gov. Reynolds entered the debate — and where the consistency trap snapped around her ankles.

Meeting with reporters last month, the governor was asked about the controversy in Madison County.

“This is a local decision, so that’s exactly what they should be doing,” Reynolds said.

“This is something that local governments will be deciding. They’re the ones that grant them and can make the decision not to.”

The governor went on to say that she does not plan to propose statewide standards to govern where wind turbines can be built.

That seems clear enough. Local governments should make the decision.

But in Iowa, there is a huge asterisk next to “local control.”

In Reynolds’ view, there is no room for local control over the size and location of livestock confinement buildings — even though there are plenty of health concerns about the effects of the animal waste odors on people living nearby.

To be fair, Reynolds hasn’t been the only defender in state government of livestock confinement facilities. Her mentor, Gov. Terry Branstad, along with Republicans and Democrats, have supported using the “master matrix” scoring system created by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to evaluate proposed locations for animal feeding confinements.

County officials in many areas have responded to local citizen concerns and have asked state officials for changes in the scoring system. Those concerns have been shrugged off, however.

Todd Dorman of the Cedar Rapids Gazette wrote recently that opposition to local control isn’t confined to livestock facilities. He pointed to the decision by Branstad that prevents local school districts from starting their fall semester classes until after the Iowa State Fair ends.

In 2017, the Republican majorities in the Legislature, with Gov. Branstad’s approval, repealed increases in the minimum wage that had been enacted by Johnson, Linn, Polk and Wapello counties. The legislation also blocks Iowa’s cities and counties from exercising local control over other issues, including requiring paid family leave, collecting an extra tax on soft drinks, or banning use of plastic bags by retailers.

Reynolds appeared to recognize that she had stepped into the local control mess at the recent press conference with her Madison County comments.

Pat Garrett, one of her aides, told Dorman a few weeks after her Aug. 27 meeting with reporters, “Gov. Reynolds is proud of Iowa’s leadership role in renewable energy, supports the wind industry and the economic contributions it has made to the state.”

There are a couple of other reasons Reynolds must be squirming with the spotlight on the health effects of wind turbines, aside from the debate over local control versus state control.

The three members of the Madison County Board of Supervisors are all Republicans, like Reynolds. And when President Donald Trump claimed this summer that wind turbines cause cancer, she tap-danced so she didn’t have to disagree with the president, nor offend her own supporters who like the thousands of wind energy jobs that have been created in Iowa in the past 15 years.

The argument Reynolds and Branstad have used for favoring state control over local control of large livestock confinements is the importance of avoiding a chaotic patchwork of 99 sets of county regulations.

Reynolds may need a new pair of tap-dancing shoes if she is going to make the case that the patchwork of regulations is bad for livestock producers wanting to build confinements but is acceptable for utility companies wanting to erect wind turbines.

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